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Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion related to her Healthy Holly books.
Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the federal courthouse after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion related to her Healthy Holly books. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

When former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s plea deal with federal prosecutors was filed last week, it came with a sealed supplement, the contents of which remain under wraps.

The supplement could show Pugh is working with federal prosecutors, a prospect that has been the source of intense speculation since Pugh’s homes and City Hall office were raided in April. But it does not necessarily indicate such cooperation. The ambiguity is by design — the result, in part, of the city’s pervasive “stop snitching” culture and concerted efforts to avoid endangering witnesses.

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More than a decade ago, as federal courts first began posting court filings online, officials in the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office were “wary about what would happen" if they began doing the same in Baltimore, said Barbara Sale, former chief of the office’s criminal division, during a panel discussion on plea deals published by the Fordham Law Review in 2011.

The fear was that filings, even those under seal, could indicate a defendant or witness was cooperating with the authorities, and put a target on their backs in a city where witnesses to crimes have been firebombed and shot in the street.

“It is the home of the infamous Stop Snitching videos, which were actually marketed DVDs, which exhorted people not to snitch on other people and threatened harm to those who cooperated with law enforcement," said Sale, who later retired in 2015. “Baltimore is also a place where we have had a constant stream of notorious, high-profile witness retaliation cases."

So, before the adoption of online federal filing in 2008, Sale worked for months with the public defender, a judge and a member of the private defense bar to “figure out how best to protect cooperating witnesses," she said during the Fordham panel. And one of the outcomes was a policy in which prosecutors file a sealed supplement along with every plea deal in Baltimore, whether there is cooperation or not.

“If the person is not cooperating, the sealed supplement simply says, ‘This is not a cooperation agreement,’” Sale said. “If the person is cooperating, it lays out in three or four pages the whole litany of expectations and obligations that go with the cooperation agreement.”

That way, Sale said, “anybody looking at the docket from outside ... would see that all plea agreements look exactly the same, and only by gaining access to the sealed supplement — and people do move to unseal from time to time — could somebody determine that Person A was cooperating, whereas Person B was not.”

Pugh’s attorney, Steven Silverman, has declined to address the extent to which she is cooperating with authorities, or the contents of the supplemental plea.

“Ms. Pugh sincerely apologizes to all of those that she let down, most especially the citizens of Baltimore whom she had the honor to serve in multiple capacities for decades,” Silverman said. “She looks forward to the conclusion of this process.

Sale could not be reached for comment, but the office of Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur confirmed the routine filing of plea supplements as a protective measure.

“In this District, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the defense bar, and the Court agreed that a Sealed Supplement is to be filed as part of every plea agreement, in order to conceal the identity of cooperating defendants, ensure their safety, and reduce the potential for obstruction of justice,” said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman.

Plea supplements in cases in which defendants are working with authorities can outline an array of cooperation, from sharing of information already known to the defendant about criminal matters unrelated to their own case, to going undercover and wearing wires so authorities can listen in on conversations with co-conspirators or other investigative targets.

People have wondered since before the 69-year-old Pugh was indicted how she would handle the prospect of time behind bars — and whether she had any dirt on others to trade for leniency.

Last week, Pugh pleaded guilty to four criminal charges — conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion — in relation to a scheme in which she sold and resold the same copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to major institutions and nonprofits with business before the state and city, and used the profits for personal and political gains without paying proper taxes on them.

During her Thursday arraignment hearing, where she pleaded guilty, there was no indication one way or the other as to whether Pugh was cooperating with federal authorities. Hur has said the investigation is ongoing.

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Any cooperation with authorities could play a role in the amount of prison time Pugh will have to serve. Guidelines suggest she should serve about five years, prosecutors have said, though the judge could depart from those guidelines to give her more or less time. She is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 27.

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